Wednesday, May 28, 2014

La Farge Organizes To Back Dam Project

“Emotions and tempers ran as high as a Kickapoo flash flood when it was learned here last week that Governor Lucey had set the date of April 27 for an intensive review of the Kickapoo Lake Project.” 
Thus began the coverage of the La Farge dam project controversy in the April 22, 1971 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper.  The local weekly was full of news on how the people in the village and surrounding area were organizing to show support for the dam project.  Editor Arnie Widstrand wrote an excellent editorial listing several reasons to support the embattled project.  Jackie Thelen, the Senior Editor of the LHS student newspaper, The Windjammer (published each week in the Enterprise), wrote an editorial also supporting the dam project.  The village newspaper contained a press release from the Kickapoo Valley Association calling on all people in the Valley to support the dam project.  A huge ad in the newspaper shouted out, “SHOW YOUR CONCERN ABOUT THE KICKAPOO LAKE PROJECT”.  A group called “The Citizens For The Kickapoo Area” paid for the advertisement, which called for people to write letters to Governor Patrick Lucey to show support for the dam project.
The reaction to the announcement of the Governor’s “intensive review” of the La Farge dam project created immediate concerns in La Farge, especially among the pro-dam majority.  Within days after the announcement, a group called “The Citizens For The Kickapoo River” (later called “The Citizens For The Kickapoo Area” and eventually shortened to a more manageable “Citizens For The Kickapoo”) was formed to counter the opposition to the La Farge dam and lake project.  Arlen Johnson, who ran the funeral parlor in town, was chosen as the spokesman for the group and Robert Vosen, who sold insurance out of his home office on Bird Street in La Farge, was selected as the chairman of the group.
The new pro-dam group began by organizing an immediate letter-writing campaign that reached out to dam supporters in the Kickapoo Valley and throughout the state and beyond.  Everyone was asked to write a letter to Governor Lucey asking for his support for the project at La Farge.  Within weeks hundreds of pro-dam letters had poured into the Governor’s offices in Madison.  The new group also started to solicit donations for the public relations effort and $1,500 was raised in a matter of days to support the cause.  With the funds, radio and newspaper advertisements were purchased, spreading the message to support the dam project at La Farge.  Organizational meetings were held daily in the village as the pro-dam forces in La Farge continued to mobilize.  Letter writing sessions were held each day and evening to help with people getting the word out to support the dam and lake project.  A lady’s church group held a prayer vigil asking for guidance for elected leaders so they could support the dam and lake project.  School children made signs supporting the project as part of their class assignments and then carried the signs that read “Save The Dam” and “Save Lake La Farge” along La Farge’s Main Street after school.
At one of the first meetings of the La Farge pro-dam group, a surprise visitor was Congressman Vernon Thomson, who restated his firm support for the dam project at La Farge.  Thomson, a Republican from Richland Center, also castigated Governor Lucey for interfering with the project and said it was “callous of the Governor to deny rural America of benefits”.
The La Farge pro-dam group wanted more information from the Governor’s office about the review meeting scheduled for later in the month.  Blake Kellogg, Governor Lucey’s press secretary, spoke to the leaders of the La Farge group several times by telephone and then came to La Farge to meet with them.  He was faced with an angry group of fifty people at the meeting held in the basement community meeting room of the La Farge State Bank.  Kellogg tried to assure the people gathered there, which included all the leaders of the pro-dam group, that the review session would be a fair and open process and all sides would be heard.  He vowed that the review would not be conducted like a “kangaroo court”, that all sides and voices would be heard and that the purpose of the review was to “put the full issues out on the table, so Governor Lucey can see the pros and cons on either side”.  Kellogg, a professional at public relations, smoothed some ruffled feathers in the crowd that day, and left with a much greater appreciation of how important the dam project was to many people in La Farge.
On Saturday night, April 24th, over 500 people gathered at the school gym in La Farge for a public meeting on the dam project.  Sponsored by the local pro-dam group, the attendees at the meeting were overwhelming in favor of completion of the dam and lake at La Farge.  Fifteen proponents of the dam spoke that night at the meeting and the rhetoric and emotion was heated.  The merits of the dam and lake were praised and the Governor’s interference was condemned.  “Professional panic-peddlers who call themselves ecologists” were vilified for stirring up the controversy.  Another speaker called for a “David and Goliath battle” as the Citizens For The Kickapoo took on the potent nationally financed conservation and environmental groups.  “These so-called environmentalists who don’t have to scratch a living out of these hills have no right to determine the future of these people”, said Arlen Johnson in referring to the anti-dam groups.  As the meeting wound down after several hours, more donations were collected to help finance the pro-dam cause, signatures were collected on petitions and instructions and addresses for writing letters of support for the dam project were distributed.
During that April of 1971, in the few weeks before the Governor’s review meeting, La Farge was a hubbub of various activities to show support for the dam project.  Posters appeared in most of the storefront windows on Main Street businesses.  School children continued to walk the streets of La Farge (sometimes during recess and noon hour of the school day) carrying signs of support and marching for the dam project.  The daily planning meetings often drew representatives from the Corps’ St. Paul office to further explain the merits of the dam and lake project.  After much agitation by the Citizens For The Kickapoo with the Governor’s office, Robert Vosen’s name was added to the list of those allowed to speak at the Governor’s review meeting.  Finally, a La Farge leader would now be able to relate a local perspective at the “intensive review”.
Next time, we will look at how that review session, held in Madison at the state capital, brought together the two opposing sides on the La Farge dam issue.  For the first time, the dam and lake project would be measured with the newly defined parameters of the emerging national environmental movement.  For the pro-dam backers from the Kickapoo Valley, the review session illuminated the landscape of the debate over the federal project.

Monday, May 5, 2014

La Farge Dam Project - An Environmental Movement Incubator

There was a time in the not too distant past when La Farge, that little town in western Wisconsin located on the Kickapoo River, was the epicenter of a national debate on environmental awareness.  For a long time, most of the residents of the community did not realize that they were “front and center” in the discussion of whether a federal flood control project was an enhancement or a degradation to the environment that it was altering.  By the time that the environmental dilemma had played out its course and the dam project on the Kickapoo was stopped, many of the residents of the greater La Farge community were disillusioned with the whole process.  Some reacted with bitterness to the loss of the lake project and struck back in whatever way they could with various forms of protest.  (There will be more on that protest movement later.)
Placing the federal La Farge dam & lake project at the center of the nation’s emerging environmental debate of the early 1970’s should probably be credited to Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey.  When he was elected governor of the state in November 1970, Lucey immediately began to look for ways to stop the federal flood control project at La Farge.  In doing so, Lucey was reacting to the concerns about the La Farge project that were raised by the state’s emerging environmental contingent, which was based on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Citing poor water quality in the proposed lake, degradation of the natural environment of the Kickapoo Valley and the loss of rare and endangered plant species, environmentalists based in Madison petitioned Governor-elect Lucey in late 1970 to put a stop to the La Farge project.  Accomplishing that feat was easier said than done.
In looking back at that time in the early 1970’s when the debate on the La Farge dam & lake project often demanded headlines in most daily newspapers in Wisconsin, it is interesting and very important to remember that a federal flood control project like the one at La Farge had never been halted previous to this time.  Indeed, when one views the events in the dam project debate that play out during that time, it is still hard to surmise that the project would ever be stopped in the matter that it was.
Governor Lucey’s administrative team really had no idea how to accomplish the stoppage of a federal project like the one at La Farge – mainly because of the ominous reality that it had never been done before.  They tried to use as a model an earlier attempt to halt a federal dam project in Georgia that had been led by Governor Jimmy Carter as a possible way to attack the La Farge project.  (Ironically, later in this dam story, it would be President Jimmy Carter who would pound in one of the last nails in the coffin of the federal project at La Farge.)  But it is important to remember that the state’s attempt to stop that federal flood control project in Georgia had failed and the dam was built to completion and water backed up behind it.  So using the Georgia attempt as a model had its problems.
Eventually, Governor Lucey called upon the Corps of Engineers to conduct an “Intensive Review” of the La Farge project.  The review would focus on alternatives to the proposed dam and lake on the Kickapoo River.   
And so it was that the La Farge Dam and Lake Project became an incubator of sorts for an emerging national environmental movement.  The “environmentalists” who opposed the project at La Farge would use it as a “petri dish” to create and germinate methods and ways to oppose such federal projects and to protect natural resources.  The Corps of Engineers project was intended to dam up the Kickapoo River at a location just north of La Farge and create a lake that would cover the northern part of the river valley from there to Ontario.
The Kickapoo River project had originated with the dam to be used strictly as a flood control structure, backing up water behind it during times of flooding.  This strategy was developed by a federal study emanating from the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935.  The concept of a flood control plan for the Kickapoo that included a dam structure north of La Farge (originally to be built just north of Rockton) and protective levees for the villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills further down stream was developed by 1940.  However, any actual construction on the project was put on hold for over two decades.  Severe flooding on the river system in the 1950’s brought the federal project back to life.  Later in the mid-1960’s the project was expanded to include a significantly larger dam on the river that would create a 1,800-acre lake with potentially vast recreational and economic benefits for the region.  As part of the expansion, thirteen different recreational areas would be developed around the lake that would range from a drive-in overlook area near the dam structure that created the lake to a fully developed 300-site campground.
When Governor Lucey called for the “Intensive Review” of the project at La Farge to look at alternatives to the dam and lake, he was reviewing a project that had been scrutinized in one form or another for nearly a third of a century.  The Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies had explored options to deal with flooding problems on the Kickapoo River extensively over those years.  But the project had not been looked at through the new lens of reality being focused by the emerging national environmental movement.
The announcement from Madison about the “Intensive Review” of the dam project also radically changed the perspective from La Farge about the project.  That local perspective had already undergone significant changes in the decades before Patrick Lucey was elected governor.  The concept of a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River had been around in one form or another for such a long time, that people of the Valley, and especially those in and around La Farge, grew tired of the continually changing proposals from the federal government.  Eventually after years of “starts and stops” and federal inertia on the project, folks around La Farge thought that the dam project was really never going to happen.
When the Corps of Engineers and various Wisconsin state agencies began to work together on the Kickapoo River project in the 1960’s and came up with a new and vastly expanded vision for flood protection in the Valley, many local people were staggered by the progress.  There was not only a new plan to control flooding on the Kickapoo, but a way and a schedule to make the new plan happen.  Politicians at the local, county, state and federal level were finally aligned to make the proposal work.  All of a sudden, the flood control plan that was never going to happen became a plan that was actually going to become a reality.
So when Governor Lucey called the summit meeting to look at alternatives to the dam at La Farge and possibly stop the project, the reaction from the little village on the Kickapoo was fast and furious.  But more on that next time when we look at that local “drawing of the lines” on the dam project.  Were you for the dam project or against it?  Was there a middle ground to stand on?